Union College marks 50 years since first women graduated

SCHENECTADY — There was a lot going on as America came out of the turbulent 1960s, and Kate White wasn’t about to spend her time cloistered at a Catholic women’s college, unable to experience firsthand what was going on in the world.
“I was encouraged by many of my teachers in high school to stick with the plan of a Catholic education for college, so I went to a Catholic school, which I won’t mention, but I was so unhappy,” said White, who, after graduating from St. Mary’s High School in Glens Falls eventually finished her education at Union College in 1972, where she was a member of the school’s first graduating class of women. “My Catholic college was just too rigid. At Union, campus life was very vibrant and intellectually stimulating, which meant so much to me after two years someplace completely different. I loved my experience there. I only regret that it wasn’t four years.”
White will talk about her time at Union 50 years ago when the school’s 2022 commencement ceremony (No. 228) begins at 10 a.m. today at Roger Hull Plaza between the Schaffer Library and Nott Memorial. The well-known author and creator of the popular Bailey Weggins mystery series, and former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan Magazine, White was one of 25 women who had transferred to the Schenectady college as juniors in the fall of 1970. She was asked to speak at this year’s ceremony by Union College President David R. Harris back in November of 2021.

“I told him I don’t know if I have the expertise to speak on the monumental issues facing Generation Z today,” said White. “But I can share a few things I’ve learned in the 50 years or so since I graduated. And Union was so the right place for me. My two short years there really shaped me.”

Mary John Boylan, a Rochester native, feels the same way about her time in Schenectady. She transferred to Union as a senior and graduated in ’72 after three years at Wheaton College just outside Boston.

“My time at Union was short but memorable,” said Boylan, who went on to University of Vermont Law School and eventually settled in the Gloucester area near Boston, and still works as an attorney. “I had gone to an all-girls secondary school and started college that way. I was living this homogeneous existence and the world was falling apart. I didn’t want to be in a place where I looked like everybody else. I resented myself and felt like I was in the middle of a long snooze.”

In 1972, Watergate’s impact on the Richard Nixon presidency wasn’t yet evident, but there was plenty of unrest throughout the country. Union College had its share, including a large anti-war demonstration in May of 1970. Retired Union history professor Robert Wells was in his second year at the school after having earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1969, and can’t remember any significant opposition to the new students on campus.

“Union, like many schools at the time, was expanding and had hired a large number of younger faculty, who by and large, approved of the idea,” said Wells, who wrote “Facing the King of Terror: Death and Society in an American Community, 1750-1990” in 2010, and “Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Music and American History” in 2018. “I was certainly for it, and I assumed most of us were, except maybe for a few of the older male faculty.”

Wells was relatively new to the school and married with two small children in 1972, so he concedes his memory about any specific pushback against the women on campus is limited. But according to the “Encyclopedia of Union College History,” compiled and edited by Wayne Somers, there were plenty of difficult situations that young women, some still in their teens, had to handle. In the book’s “Women at Union” section, Faye Dudden, a history professor who taught at Union from 1983 to 1997, chronicled some of the issues the new students on campus had to navigate, including one particularly chauvinistic article in a school magazine.

“It was quite important that the young women were pretty,” wrote Dudden, who died in 2020 after also having taught at Colgate University. “The ‘Symposium,’ for example, after informing alumni about class size and SAT scores, could not resist concluding, ‘The first group of women is a remarkably attractive collection. And happily for Union’s men, they do not admire the midi-skirt.’ Union was no different from the country at large.”

Somers, who owns and operates W Somers Bookseller on Union Street next to the college, was working at the Schaffer Library on the Union campus at the time.

“Some of the pushback was in the other direction,” said Somers, referring to the ‘Symposium’ article. “The college did all this preparation for the transition, including hiring a female assistant dean of students, and then the article says how ‘there will be no dogs in the freshman class.’ These days that kind of comment would have created a firestorm, and even back then there was some reaction against it. I said, ‘Why isn’t there?’ Not all capable women have to be pretty?’”

Like Wells, however, Somers says most of what he heard was positive.

“There were some faculty who were concerned and weren’t happy about it,” he said, “but most were for it. Those that weren’t realized that the decision had been made and it was time to move on.”

Union College wasn’t the only school that had decided to begin accepting women as full-time students when the turbulent 1960s came to a close. Harvard and Radcliffe had agreed to a merger in 1969, and in that same fall both Princeton and Yale welcomed women students to their campus.

“I’ve always suggested the ’60s started roughly around 1964 and ended with the Nixon resignation and the pull-out in Vietnam,” said Wells. “So it was more like ’64 to ’74, and during that time people were becoming aware that the baby boom was going to be over. Schools were concerned about their enrollment numbers as they looked down the road, and there was also this sense that women wanted to go to the best Ivy League schools.”

All-women colleges, meanwhile, were also concerned with their numbers. In 1967, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie welcomed its first male students, and in 1971 Skidmore College in Saratoga springs followed suit.

“By the time the ’60s were winding down, people began to realize that having men and women on the campus was just a more natural environment,” said Wells. “But those first few years, the ratio of girls to boys was still low. I can remember some of my male students saying how they still had to drive up to Skidmore to get a date.”

As much as White and Boylan enjoyed their experience at Union, it wasn’t always smooth.

“It could be challenging and daunting at times to be one of only 100 or so co-eds,” said White. “There was really no one to ask for guidance, and so we had to navigate by ourselves. I took an English class in which I and another girl were the only two females. I didn’t mind being outnumbered, but it was awkward because the professor, who had advocated against co-ed education, never made eye contact with the two of us. It wouldn’t have occurred to us back then to complain to anyone in the administration, and it would have been a hard thing to prove.”

White added that her professor finally became a bit more welcoming, but she wasn’t the only woman seeking a little more guidance at the time.

“Bringing in women seemed like a natural transition at Union, but it also seemed like an afterthought to the administration,” said Boylan. “There was no real structure for us, and for me and other girls there who were only familiar with the single-sex education experience, simply being in the same room with people of the opposite sex was so different. I was such a rudderless kid at the time, and it seemed like the college really didn’t have a plan for us.”

The school’s admission staff, on the other hand, was quite welcoming.

“My grandfather had a close friend who had gone to Union and he mentioned to my mother that Union was going co-ed,” remembered White. “So I applied there and was not only accepted but given a full scholarship, the only reason I was able to transfer.”

Boylan also found the admissions process to be easy.

“In the summer of ’71, I had very impulsively dropped out of school and wasn’t planning on going back,” said Boylan. “I was working in some stupid job, and I was on my way to Yale from Rochester to see my boyfriend. And my brother, who was going to Union, said maybe I should go to Union. He said it would be fun. So as a lark we went to the admissions office while I was there and talked to the director, who gave me an application. They were so nice about it. I’m sure having a sibling there helped, but I applied and got approved quickly, and was there taking classes in the fall.”

Both White and Boylan cherish their time at Union, and for White the experience really did propel her onward to an extraordinary life and career. Near the end of her time in Schenectady, she was selected by Union College officials to represent the school in a national contest sponsored by Glamour Magazine. She ended up one of 10 national winners and got her face on the cover of the August 1972 issue.

“Oh my gosh, two wonderful people from the administration picked me as Union’s entry, and then I not only won a prize, a trip to Europe, but I also got on the cover of the magazine,” said White, who is married to former WRGB-Channel 6 anchorman Brad Holbrook. “I knew it would be a great entry into the magazine business. I modeled for a couple of years in New York after that — it was a mindless experience but fun — and it all led to so many wonderful opportunities.”

For Boylan, her year in Schenectady introduced her to the volatile world of the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot in ’68, and we had Kent State in 1970 and the Pentagon Papers in ’71, and at an all-girls college I just felt so removed from the world,” she said. “And I hated feeling removed from the world. Union changed all that, and the campus was beautiful. If you needed some peace you could go to Jackson Gardens. That place was a real refuge for me, and I have a special affection for the entire campus and my time there. My year at Union really inspired me.”

Categories: -News-, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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